Once upon a time, daytime network television in the U.S. was filled with serial dramas— the "soap operas," named so because they were originally solely sponsored by soap companies: the original branded content. Whereas once there were 15+ soap operas on U.S. network television, we are now down to 4 at the end of 2012. So what happened?
The industry's answer always has to do with external factors that were beyond their control. But, in addition to those external factors that couldn't be changed, I have my own list of reasons as to why the soap opera industry damaged itself— and they are lessons any brand should keep in mind.
If you ask soap opera executives what happened, you typically get one of three answers:
1.) Women Went to Work. It's inevitable that society changed, and the viewing model of the soap opera changed with it. As women entered the workforce, the traditional model of attracting the housewife dwindled. In this line of reasoning, soap operas were simply victims of the times— a positive social movement that nevertheless destroyed an industry and its storytelling format.
2.) The Proliferation of Choice. Cable television brought with it more channels than you could everimagine. Betamax, the VCR, the DVD player, and the DVR allow for time-shifting of content, so that no one is any longer beholden to what airs on the three networks and PBS when choosing what to watch during the afternoon hours.
And then, my personal favorite:
3.) O.J. Simpson Did It. This one typically surprises people outside the soaps world. But, while O.J. wasn't convicted for the more heinous crimes he was charged with, a jury of soap opera industry veterans would certainly find him guilty of killing the soaps. The O.J. Simpson trial preempted soap operas in 1995 for many weeks, breaking the daily rhythm soap operas had established. No one knew for sure when the soaps were coming back on. And, when they did, their ratings went down significantly, never to rise back to pre-O.J. levels.
Those are all contributing factors, to be sure, but then there are the three reasons you don't hear soap opera executives talking about quite as much:
1.) Other Creators Started Doing It Better. Despite lower budgets and convoluted family trees, U.S. daytime dramas had one major difference from their primetime counter-parts for much of the last 60+ years of televised soaps—true seriality. Whereas each episode of a primetime show once had little connection to the next (so they could air in any order in syndication), soap opera episodes always flowed from one to the next. These days, however, many of the primetime dramas heralded as "quality television" have reached that status in part by marrying big budgets with a soap opera storytelling structure, with episodes that flow from one into the next which put focus on an ensemble cast of characters and the dynamics of that community, rather than just on moving the plot along.
2.) Short-Term Fixes Replaced Long-Term Strategy. When the soap opera industry started to realize that ratings were declining, the industry entered a 30+-year series of quick fixes that have done anything but. Introducing sci-fi elements. Increasing the sex factor. Appealing to college kids. Stealing soap stars from other shows. Creating gimmick storylines (from natural disasters to explosions to everything else you can imagine). Increasing the frequency of cataclysmic events and cliffhangers. You name it; soaps have tried it. But many of these strategies have been aimed at getting the ratings up ASAP, and too few involved network, producer, and advertisers coming together for a long-term strategy for rebuilding the brands of these iconic shows.
3.) Soaps Broke the Model that Differentiated Them. Worst of all, soaps started to get away from what made them different. The short-term fixes often involved trying to do things that soaps just can't do as well with their budgets. When soaps were at their height, they were aired live and looked more like plays: mostly taking place in characters' living rooms, kitchens, and work offices. As ratings started slipping, soaps started trying to appeal to the younger demographic in particular, breaking the very way soaps had long gained and maintained viewers— through a multigenerational fan base, with the shows having been passed down from grandparent to child to grandchild. When, in the 1980s, soaps decided to do all they could to keep the 18-34-year-old viewership from sliding, they began a process of running off older viewers, which eventually broke the model.
What is the lesson for brands? We can't change external factors that happens in the world around us, but we can change how we react to them. No brand can lose sight of what differentiates them, and every effort to hang on to the world just as it was will doom you in the world that has become. Time will tell whether the four soap operas that remain on the air will find a way not just to "hang on" but to thrive once again. But pay attention to, and learn the lessons from, what got this once vibrant American institution into its current state. Or else you'll end up an icon of a previous era as well.
For more on this subject, see The Survival of Soap Opera: Strategies for a New Media Era, a book I co-edited which features different takes on soaps' current state from academics, critics, fans, soap opera writers, and soap opera actor Tristan Rogers (of Robert Scorpio fame). Also, see Lynn Liccardo's new ebook, As the World Stopped Turning.
*Sam Ford is Peppercomm's Director of Digital Strategy and co-author of the forthcoming book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.